INTERVIEW: Wolf Totem director shares stories from the set of the epic film

2015-11-20 07:30

Cape Town - It’s not every day you experience a goosebump moment during an interview but my short phone chat with Jean-Jacques Annaud had several spine-tingling moments.

The talented Annaud is perhaps best known for his work on Seven Years in Tibet – which saw him banned for life from ever entering China because of the film’s negative portrayal of the country’s military forces.

Coincidentally his latest project Wolf Totem, based on the 2004 novel by Lu Jiamin - which sold over 20m copies and is now the second most-read book in the country, saw him returning to the place he was once not allowed to enter.

An article by The Guardian reveals that China’s change of heart came after Annaud wrote a letter of apology and producers of Wolf Totem were unable to find any Chinese directors who were willing to work with the specially trained wolves that the project required.

What surprised me most during my phone conversation with Annaud was how friendly and open he was. I somehow expected an acclaimed director of his caliber to be stern, serious and to the point.

Not Annaud. In his thick French accent he asked about Cape Town, the weather and the wine before we got to the serious stuff.

Living with wolves:

The mammoth task of putting together this gripping film becomes clear once you realise the scale of the project.

Filming took place over a three year period in remote Inner Mongolia and the wolves were raised from pups to star in the film.

“We didn’t want to rely on CGI for the film. We wanted the real thing but it was almost impossible to put human actors next to real wolves. So we had to start at the very beginning.

“We got 16 Mongolian wolf puppies from a zoo in Harbin and flew in trainers from Canada to raise the pups so they could star in the film,” says Annaud.

“Shooting took place on-and-off over this period as we waited for the wolves to grow so we could shoot the next scenes. Sometimes we would stop for four weeks at a time and then return again to Inner Mongolia to shoot new scenes.”

One of the most challenging scenes in the movie involved 200 horses, 40 wolves and 6 months of filming.

“This was a huge challenge and to make it more difficult the scene needed to be filmed at night. I looked at the scene in sequence and broke it down step by step in order to capture the final product you see on the big screen,” Annaud explains.

The scene, that will undoubtedly be burned into the memory of everyone who watches it, is just one of the examples of the 72-year-old’s genius.

Tragedy at the very end:

Taking on a project that spans over such a long period is nothing new for the French director. “I don’t mind spending years on a project. Since childhood I’ve seen cinema as an escape. Something about the epic scale of a project like this gets my heart pumping.

“It’s when it all comes together and you see everything fall into place for the first time that you know it was worth it. For this project specifically the moment came in London. When I got to see the music and the film melt together for the first time.”

Annaud takes a moment of silence. The music for the film was composed by a close friend, James Horner. Horner sadly passed away in a plane crash shortly after completing work on Wolf Totem.

“It’s then that the magic of cinema comes alive and you know that you love what you are doing.”

Interesting facts about Wolf Totem:

* Wolf Totem is a 2015 Chinese-language drama film based on the 2004 Chinese semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Lu Jiamin.

* The plot of the film: During China's Cultural Revolution, a young urban student is sent to live with Mongolian herders, where he adopts a wolf cub.

* According to producer Alan Wang, a guard-dog Rusty became a self-trained actor after constantly listening to commends given by wolf-trainer Andrew Simpson. Rusty did stunts for the wolves and is also a good friend with King Cloudy, the alpha-wolf. Both Rusty and Cloudy have retired and emigrated to Canada.

* Lead actor Shaofeng Feng fell from the horse in the first day of filming. During the film-making, he was also bitten and scratched by the wolves occasionally.

Wolf Totem opens in South African cinemas on Friday, 20 November.

(Images: Supplied. Sources: IBDM, The Guardian.)

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